He walks gingerly into the living room and greets with a broad smile and warm handshake. The voice is husky though, the lingering effect of a chest congestion that had confined him to hospital for the better part of the last two months. The illness also delayed his annual mid-year trip from Chandigarh, where his daughter lives with her family, to stay with his sons in Canada and enjoy the mild North American summer.
Sipping black tea to soothe his throat, Balbir Singh (Senior) soon warms up to the conversation. Olympics is in the air, and who better than the 87-year-old hockey legend, and a true successor to Dhyan Chand as a mesmerising centre-forward, to reminisce past glory that has now crumbled into a mere journey of hope.
It was Dhyan Chand’s wizardry which netted India three gold medals in a row from 1928 to 1936. And Balbir Singh, an equally nimble-footed player with deft stick-work took over the role of his hero after the World War II, to extend the triumphant reign to three more Olympics (1948-1956). The exploits got “Golden Hat-trick” and “Senior” appended to his name, distinguishing him from his peers with the same name.
The neatly-arranged mementoes in the room signify all that was glorious in the Indian game in a bygone era — a tiny silver cup, the first won by Balbir Singh at school, has the pride of place on a low stool. A framed Guinness Book of Records certificate announces him as the scorer of most goals in an Olympic hockey final — five in the 6-1 thumping of the Netherlands in Helsinki in 1952, including his second hat-trick of the tournament.
His right hand, which once bamboozled rival defenders, now trembles, but the energy and pride in his voice is unmistakable as he recounts the journey of how a schoolboy goalkeeper and defender was inspired to become a centre-forward ‘like’ Dhyan Chand after watching his exploits in a documentary on the team’s triumph in the 1936 Berlin Games.
The clarity with which he narrates the highs of a remarkable era, they could well have happened yesterday; he smilingly mentions some of the less-publicised low points too, but without any trace of rancour. Such moments were provided by whimsical sports officials, who pushed the first-choice striker of undivided Punjab, and India, into the reserves ahead of the 1948 Games, once even cruelly pulling him out of the playing eleven, just as he was preparing for the bully to start the game! “I was mentally tough as it was also humiliating,” he points out, less a complaint and more a message to current athletes with king-size egos.
“There was some controversy; some said I was given more passes! Whenever they tried to put me down, I showed resilience; whenever injustice was done, I have done better.”
The gifted player eventually got to play just two matches in London, but made a big splash on Olympic debut by scoring six goals, including a hat-trick, to beat Argentina 9-1. That earned him a spot for the final against Great Britain, and he responded with two more goals in the memorable 4-0 win over the erstwhile rulers. “It was India’s first major sporting success under the national tri-colour; I still can’t explain the happiness I felt,” he says.
The amateur spirit shone through as well. Balbir Singh, then with Punjab Police, recalled how its authoritarian former IG, Sir John Bennett, who had once detained the reluctant player to persuade him to lead the police team, received him in London and gave the invaluable tip that the Indians should attack the ball as the playing surface was too heavy.
“Those were the days when an entire contingent used to return home proud, under the umbrella of the hockey team,” he proudly recalls. The former India captain — and the only Indian to be accorded the honour as flag-bearer twice in the Olympics — is pleased that times are changing and India can now hope to win medals in many other sports. “This time, our medal chances are better…archery, shooting, boxing, badminton, tennis…We were not sports conscious, but now things are better.”
He recalled how, after the 1948 Olympics, he and his wife were taken on a victory parade in Moga town where he grew up. As it reached the marketplace, an elderly woman inquired if it was a wedding. On being told that the young man had achieved sporting success, she shockingly asked: “His beard has grown so long and he is still playing sports?”
But it pains him that, instead of focusing on success, the tennis contingent is deeply divided and is squabbling openly. “It is really sad,” he nods in disapproval.
What about hockey? He wants ‘educated’ candidates to be sent for training in reputed overseas academies so that they can return and help lift the standard of the game because hiring foreign coaches at high costs can only be a temporary step. He feels the federation showed haste in showering cash awards on the players for just qualifying for the Games. “I’m happy for the players, but the federation should have taken into account the opposition they faced. They should have waited to see how the team does at the Olympics.”
Balbir plans to travel to London on his own to watch the hockey competition. “It is my dream that India regain their top spot on the podium.” Something easier said than done but he feels India’s Australian coach Michael Nobbs or other officials should not set their sights low.
“There is a Punjabi saying, ‘those who throw stones at the moon throw higher than those who throw at tree tops’. My sympathies are always with the team. Don’t say they will finish fifth or sixth. Say we are going to win.”
So, how did India dominate until the 1960s? Did the switch from natural grass to astro turf end that supremacy? “I may not be very popular for saying this, but hockey was imported from England. The hard ball and hard grounds here helped Indians develop better stick-work. The turf in Europe was heavy due to wet conditions. We were faster and had superior control. Now, the surface is the same for all. They use it more and are superior.”
Hockey’s success and downfall